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Three Moves for Managers to Develop Workers’ Human Skills

“He never had any fresh ideas.”

“She gave up too easily.”

“They just didn’t show leadership potential.”

When new hires don’t work out, these are often the reasons why. Last year, a major survey of hiring professionals showed that bad hires were far more likely to lack “soft skills” than “hard skills.”

The explanation is simple. It’s much easier to screen for technical incompetence — the programmer whose code doesn’t work, the designer whose portfolio looks sloppy — than it is to spot the interpersonal issues, like poor time management or low emotional intelligence.

If they’re so hard to find, why call them “soft” skills? Some say “power skills” or “personal skills” instead. We use the term human skills because these are the unique talents of human beings, the capabilities that technology can never really master.

It can be tough to accurately assess human skills. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have to fire one “bad hire” after another. If someone is struggling, why not help them cultivate those human skills?

After all, these skills can be nurtured,. They’re not just about nature. Experts insist that even the most elusive human skills — like leadership or resilience — are developed over time. They’re not fixed, innate qualities. Sometimes people just need guidance as they grow.

How to Improve Human Skills in Management

Managers can give people that guidance. They are in the best position to cultivate human skills.

Working closely with frontline employees, managers can identify each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. In many cases, managers are also the most trusted leaders for their team members. Their actions can speak louder than words from HR or the C-Suite. 

But so many managers are wasting this opportunity, according to the latest Degreed research. The majority don’t give regular feedback on performance or skills, most are not conducting periodic check-ins, and very few are creating plans or setting goals for developing skills.

So, what should these managers do? How can they help people become more innovative, increase resilience, or grow as leaders? What does it look like to develop someone’s human skills?

The possibilities are limitless, but it’s not hard to get started. We’ve got some advice to share. We identified three of the most sought-after human skills and studied how managers can nurture these abilities. If your people need these skills, here are the strategies to try.

1. Want Creativity? Set Aside Some Time.

Many of us believe that brilliant ideas break through almost randomly. But we got this impression from popular myths, not from accurate accounts of innovation:

  • The original “eureka” moment — when Archimedes jumped out of his bath with an understanding of buoyancy — was actually fabricated centuries later. 
  • Isaac Newton theorized the law of gravity five decades before spouting that story about the falling apple. 
  • Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species 24 years after finishing his famed trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Though their epiphanies are apocryphal, these thinkers can still teach us how creativity actually works. One common thread? They had extended time to think.

Ancient Greeks like Archimedes valued the vita contemplativa — the contemplative life — as the highest form of human existence. When Newton grasped gravity, he was waiting out the Great Plague at Cambridge University.

As for Darwin, he spent five years on the HMS Beagle, took three more years to come up with “natural selection,” and then needed another two decades to explain his big idea.

Of course, we can’t all wait that long, but innovative organizations make time for creativity. Google’s approach is the most renowned. The tech company encourages employees to dedicate 20% of their time to personal projects. Plenty of those ideas don’t work out, but the payoff can be huge. Pivotal products like Gmail and AdSense started out as side projects.

Managers can’t launch such bold policies on their own, but they can take a more measured approach. If an employee seems stuck, stay patient and allow her some time to work it out.

When a worker has a unique idea, get flexible and let him pursue it more. Who knows what will come of it? Only time will tell.

2. Need Resilience? Get More Vulnerable.

In the wake of worldwide disruption, everyone is trying to be more resilient. Organizations are overhauling their strategies, emphasizing agility amid uncertainty. But these large-scale adaptations also require resilience at the individual level.

If you want people to get more resilient, try letting down your guard a little. Some assume that strong leaders shouldn’t show weakness, but this attitude makes it hard for others to relate. If your team doesn’t know your struggle, they might not trust you to help them persevere.

Kristen Przano experienced the power of vulnerability firsthand. She works at Capital One, as a senior manager in their innovation center, The Garage. A few years back, though, Przano was seriously struggling with postpartum depression.

“I was ashamed, and I told my husband and my doctor, but I was afraid to tell my boss,” she recalled. “She is a smart, strong, confident leader. I didn’t want to disappoint her.”

Eventually, Przano opened up. In that moment, her manager decided to reciprocate, sharing her own past troubles. Przano was shocked at first; she never saw her boss like this. But the display of vulnerability was transformative. “I began to see a glimmer of hope and my recovery was launched in turbo-charge.” 

Now, Przano has been at Capital One for more than a decade, steadily moving up the ranks. She even started a support group for co-workers coming back from maternity leave. She attributes her success to that conversation with her manager: “It took becoming totally, absolutely, instantly vulnerable to become strong again.”

This should not come as a surprise. Many experts — including executives like Sheryl Sandberg and researchers like Brené Brown — have linked vulnerability and resilience.

Yes, it might feel uncomfortable, especially for managers. But the benefits of vulnerability will last longer than any momentary discomfort.

3. Looking for Leadership? Be Specific About Skills.

Bad leadership advice is everywhere.

Self-help gurus shill strategies without any verifiable evidence of what works. Coaches and executives hire ghostwriters to riff on their favorite clichés just to make a buck from a book. Corporations sink billions into leadership training, but they don’t get results.

What are managers supposed to do, then? Keep pushing people into the company program? Buy the latest best-seller that folks won’t read? Make up your own maxims for people to parrot?

Thankfully, none of that will be necessary. Analysts at McKinsey actually did empirical research on leadership skills. They figured out which behaviors really make a difference.

First, the researchers looked through the lengthy literature on leadership and made a list of 20 traits that might matter. Next, they surveyed 189,000 people about the leadership behaviors in their organizations. Then, the analysts cross-referenced that survey data with McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index to identify which behaviors were happening in the strongest organizations.

The research team found that four specific skills account for 89% of the variance in leadership effectiveness. These are the skills that your aspiring leaders really need to master: 

  • Solving Problems Effectively
  • Operating with a Strong Results Orientation
  • Seeking Different Perspectives
  • Supporting Others

These four skills take time to develop, but the shortlist makes it easy to get started. For employees with leadership potential, good managers can recognize which skills need to get stronger.

Are certain issues not getting fixed? Share a problem-solving protocol. Did they fall short on some key objectives? Explain how to focus on results. Are they overlooking alternative ideas? Teach them to seek fresh perspectives.

Do others struggle to keep up? Challenge your rising leaders to empower others.

Again, cultivating those four skills will take time. But unlike most training programs or best-selling books, this leadership advice is actually backed by detailed data. That means you can dive deep into these skills, without worrying about which traits are trendy.

Learn more about how to cultivate human skills on your team in this Pathway curated just for managers.

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